“Stand back and stand by” was President Trump’s message to the Proud Boys at last week’s presidential debate. What followed was a feeling of ecstasy amongst the extreme far-right group, who interpreted Trump’s words as encouragement. Trump seemed to shift his stance a few days later, claiming he had never heard of them – but the damage was already done.
This was until a rather different group of boys put a stop to it: LGBTQ+ couples started posting pictures of themselves kissing online, reclaiming the hashtag #ProudBoys. In doing so, they disrupted the violent, extreme-right narrative and drew important attention towards Trump’s LGBTQ+ politics.
Racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Transphobia, violence, right-wing extremism, white nationalism, misogyny, and anti-immigration sentiment are commonly associated with the Proud Boys. As much as they try to deny it, or claim their policies prohibit discrimination, reality tells a different story.
Some of the most famous white supremacists are members of this far-right organisation, there is video footage of co-founder Gavin McInnes giving the Nazi salute, and charges have been brought against members who attacked anti-fascists. Current group leader Enrique Tarrio told CNN that “our main objective is to defend the West” and that they were not afraid to defend themselves – with “justified violence” as McInnes once put it.
Trump’s shoutout was like a fresh gust of wind under the Proud Boys’ wings. Online celebrations, the promotion of their ideas and the adaption of “stand back and stand by” as a new merchandise slogan soon followed.
Standing back and standing by fits the philosophy of the Proud Boys perfectly – they view themselves as protectors of the Western world, using violence as a defensive tool. The new slogan Trump provided them with shows as attentive watchers, they are ready to step in when they see fit – which has, historically, caused issues.
Trump denouncing the group several days after the debate due to intense public pressure did not affect their newfound high. If anything, they saw it coming and never planned to take it seriously. After the debate, prominent Proud Boy Joe Biggs wrote online: “Don’t be surprised if he makes a statement on us in the upcoming days to appease the masses,” then added: “But he knows we are the good guys.”.
This confidence in Trump’s approval was not fabricated out of thin air. The Proud Boys are some of Trump’s biggest supporters, his red “Make America Great Again” caps are part of their uniform. They were part of making the Charlottesville protests violent, yet Trump stated there were “fine people” on both sides of the protest. He has often dog whistled the group on Twitter when commenting on Antifa or anti-fascist events. His associate Roger Stone worked with the Proud Boys.
It is hard to believe that Trump has not heard of the group who supports him unwaveringly, yet has been described as “extremist” (or at least having extremist members) by the FBI. And easy to understand why the Proud Boys see him as supportive of their mission.
However, neither Trump nor the Proud Boys saw the other group of proud boys coming: the ones that stand for love and equality, a stark contrast to their namesake. Actor and activist George Takei tweeted,
What if gay guys took pictures of themselves making out with each other or doing very gay things, then tagged themselves with #ProudBoys. I bet it would mess them up real bad. #ReclaimingMyShine.
Social media has since been flooded with pictures of men kissing, men with their families, and allies sharing their support. The extreme-right Proud Boys have been drowned out. Against the backdrop of an LGBTQ+ community that is fearful of Trump’s potential reelection, this is a powerful reminder that love can overpower hate.
Trump has spent the past four years slowly but surely stripping away LGBTQ+ rights. Nondiscrimination protections were taken away for students, including those who need healthcare, and those who want to adopt children. Trans people were banned from the military, and prisons and homeless shelters were permitted to house people according to their birth-assigned sex against their will.
“Aside from voting, I think a lot of us are trying to do anything we can to really make a difference or, not necessarily silence, but push back the neo-Nazis and the far-right groups that are spreading hatred,” content creator Noah Reed told the Washington Post. He and his finance participated in the campaign on Twitter.
As predicted by Takei, the Proud Boys themselves were not exactly supportive. Forbes reported slurs being used on message boards, calls for homosexuality to be illegal and even suggestions to apply a “final solution” – which is the Nazi idea that led to the Holocaust.
Being banned from most social media platforms, including Twitter, prevented the Proud Boys from redirecting the conversation to themselves and countering the LGBTQ+ community. Their protesting voices remained on smaller, conservative platforms – where they, therefore, had little reach outside of their existing group.
The LGBTQ+ campaign and the efforts of the community and its allies to reclaim the #ProudBoys was a huge success. It has been a sign of hope for the LGBTQ+ community, highlighting that when everyone comes together, there is a chance for equality and that there is an enormous sense of solidarity within the community.
Whilst the reclaimed hashtag has not prompted broader political discussions about Trump’s LGBTQ+ policies, it took the wind out of the sails of the extreme-right Proud Boys ship. The topic of conversation changed from hate and discrimination to love and equality. Due to Trump’s association with the group, this also somewhat attacked his position, as it is clear by now which side of the scale he is leaning towards.